Today Poland and Czechia are to restart their talks about Prague withdrawing its suit against Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) regarding the extension of the license for the open-pit mine in Turów. What are the reasons behind the dispute landing all the way at the CJEU? How does the Polish PGE see the issues with water in Czechia? Bartłomiej Sawicki, editor at BiznesAlert.pl, is looking for answers.
Why Turów is important
During interviews with journalists the representatives of the Polish state-owned company Polska Grupa Energetyczna Górnictwo i Energetyka Konwencjonalna (PGE GiEK) stressed that contrary to the popular opinion lignite, including the deposits in Turów, is not going away. In fact, the numbers are telling a different story. In 2020 lignite extraction in Turów went up from 7 to 9 million tons instead of dropping. In 2019 power generation at the Turów power plant accounted for 3.5 percent of the annual demand in Poland, and a year later it increased to 3.7 percent. Since a new additional 500 MW unit has been commissioned last May, the importance of the power plant for Poland’s grid may grow even more, just like the volume of generated power.
A transition we cannot see
The public opinion is convinced that the lignite mine in Turów will continue to grow and expand its pit in result of the extension of the license. However, this is not the case. In comparison to its biggest size, today the mine in Turów is half as big as a dozen or so years ago, when it had 66 sq km. Today it has only 31 sq km, and will remain this big until 2044, when it will approach the border with Czechia. Some of its areas will be recultivated, but in others exploration will be continued. In other words, the open-pit will move, but not expand. The closest the mine will get to the border with Czechia will be a few hundred meters in 2024. The closest buildings to the mine will be 1190 meters away. At that point the yearly extraction is to reach 7 million tons.
The energy transition, especially the “just” one, is often talked about in the context of jobs and its social impact. Therefore, jobs offer the best take on this process. As little as 10 years ago 3.6 thousand people worked at the mine in Turów. A decade later that figure dropped to 2.2 thousand. During the 74 years of the mine’s operation 42 thousand people worked there. This figure will continue to drop in the coming decade, because the average age of the miners is just below 50, which means they are close to being eligible to retire early. Why is the number of employees going down? They believe there is no future in the mining profession because of the energy transition, so they are looking for other jobs. They often find employment in modern industries, e.g. the car factory in the nearby German state of Saxony. Result? Since there are no plans for a just transition in Poland, the country’s highly qualified specialists are implementing it, but in our neighbor’s country.
The dispute with Czechia – where was the error made?
In 1994 the license for the Turów mine was extended by another 25 years. It expired in late spring of 2020. Five years before that happened, the environmental assessment had begun in line with the EU law. Since 2016 meetings were held with the Czechs and Germans who submitted their applications, motions, propositions and concerns. In the fall of 2019 it seemed that the Czechs, Germans and Poles have reached an agreement. The memorandum of understanding said that the Czechs and Germans accepted the measures the mine would undertake to alleviate its impact on the areas adjacent to the Polish border in Czechia. On this basis the mine received the environmental decision, and then a license to continue extraction until 2044. However, PGE claims that later on the Czechs started to put forward new demands and the talks were affected by the election campaign in Czechia.
The actions included in the environmental decision that the mine needs to take to alleviate its impact on the environment will or already have cost PGE PLN 80 million. The CJEU decision from last May said that the mine needs to “immediately” stop all activities and wait for the dispute to be solved. However, the miners argue that this is impossible to do, and the damage caused by implementing this decision might be catastrophic for the environment and for the Czechs alike. After lignite extraction is ceased in Turów in the early 2040s, the mine is to be prepared to be filled with water, which may take another 20 years. An immediate “abandonment” of the mine may result in a construction and environmental disaster, and the issues with water shortages on the Czech side of the border will not disappear anyway. In order to maintain the open-pit’s stability water needs to be continually pumped out. If the extraction is stopped this process will be continued.
Before the area is abandoned by humans and “given back to nature” it needs to be prepared, which will take years. The lake that is to be developed in Turów will have 30 sq km, and will be 160 meters deep, which means it will be the deepest lake in Poland. It took 15 years for Germany to fill in one of their old open-pit mines, and they were aided by the flood that occurred a decade ago. However, for such a lake to appear in Turów, the sides of the open-pit need to be stabilized. The angle of incline needs to be lowered from 9 to 7 percent. Otherwise the sides will collapse when the pit is flooded. According to PGE, leaving the mine in the current shape may mean the sides will collapse in two years already. This has been calculated and measured by the AGH University of Science adn Technology. Preparing the pit alone will take 15 years. This process will also need to be discussed with the Czechs and will require new environmental assessments. PGE GiEK was responsible for preparing geological arguments in response to the Czech complaint to the CJEU. In the end, it looks like not all of them were included in the Polish response. However, in the response to the Czech demand that the court impose penalties on Poland for not implementing the temporary measure, these arguments were supposedly used. The responses to the CJEU were prepared by the Ministry of Climate and Environment, but they were also completed by other ministries. In total Poland prepared three missives: a response to the Czech complaint, a response to the application for imposing the penalty, and a petition to withdraw the approved temporary measure. In this application apart from the potential mining catastrophe, the problem of stopping heat and hot water supply to the town of Bogatynia from the power plant in Turów, was also raised. Reportedly the missive also included issues related to grid safety and cross-border transmission. In May PSE stressed that the cost of the unmet demand may reach about PLN 5 billion. This may cause an increase in wholesale prices. From the point of view of import, no generation at Turów may mean that the allocation of import may decrease by 500 MW in comparison to today. “If there is no power plant, the possibility of cross-border exchange will be diminished, which would have a negative impact on the modernization and investments in the energy sector,” the CEO of PSE Eryk Kłossowski pointed in May.
Did and if not why these arguments find their way into the response to the Czech complaint filed with the CJEU last February? The question remains open. So, let’s go back to February. Before submitting the complaint, Czechs were eager to strike a deal. They presented a list of demands Poles should agree on. It included the construction of a protective wall, which would protect the Czechs from increased amounts of dust (PGE agreed to this. The wall that is to be 1.1 km long and 20 m tall can be built within 9 months); compensation for water losses near Uhelna to the tune of CZK 175 million, obligation to continue negotiations on the construction of alternative water sources in the affected areas (estimated cost CZK 800 million), a fund that will bankroll smaller protective projects (to the tune of CZK 2.5 million), establishing an intergovernmental committee that will regularly monitor the impact of the extraction. These demands correspond with those that Poles initially agreed on, and which have been hammered out in Prague for almost a month now. At the beginning of the year Poles were sure that their arguments were solid enough to win. However, everything seems to point to the fact that they were not articulated in the right way. These are the direct causes of the failure at the CJEU. Still, mistakes made in the past have also contributed to Poland’s difficult predicament at the Court. The environmental assessment took 5 years to complete. The process dragged on and only ended in early 2020, while the license for Turów expired in April. The General Directorate for Environmental Protection and Water Management might have not had enough time to issue the environmental decision. So, since time was running out the government decided to use the legal loophole from 2018, which allows for a one-time extension of a license for six years without the necessity to prepare the environmental assessment. The Minister of Climate and Environment decided to use the loophole and extend the license to PGE by six years in March 2020, despite the fact that the environmental report had been already ready.
The Czechs determined that Poles broke the EU by applying the regulations from 2018 and decided to file a complaint with the CJEU. The European Commission also supported this argument. Moreover, last June Poles amended the regulations from 2018 by rescinding the possibility of a one-time extension of a license for six years without an environmental decision. The government itself admitted in the justification to the amendment that the law from 2018 had to be changed, because it may raise doubts about being in line with EU regulations. The question is whether it really had to take five years to complete the environmental assessment. Couldn’t this process be finished earlier? Or, let’s dig deeper – if in 1994 the ministry responsible for resources and minerals had extended the license for Turów not by 25, but by 50 years, we wouldn’t have to deal with this issue today. However, we also would not have the environmental impact assessment, which had not been conducted back then.
What’s with the water?
One of the arguments raised by the Czechs in the complaint to the CJEU, is that the mine is causing issues with water access in Czechia. The PGE Group and some geologists argue that the mine may have little impact on the level of water in Czech wells. The wells are about several meters deep. The wells in Uhelna in Czechia, where the damages caused by the mine are said to be the worst, have been in operation since the 1950s. Allegedly their water level has dropped by about 9 meters since then. The deepest point at the mine, that will get closer to the Czech border, will be 230 meters deep, and the deepest point in the mine in general will be 330 meters down. However, PGE has pointed out that considering the depth of the impenetrable layer it is highly unlikely that the water from Czechia was “escaping to Poland”. The company believes that a gravel pit in Czechia that is located even closer to the affected area and is as many as 80 meters deep, may have contributed more to the current problem. The Czech water holes are quaternary wells, and water comes from precipitation. Whereas the mentioned gravel pit is located barely 100 meters from the closest buildings.
The environmental decision obliged PGE to monitor water levels. The area of the mine is surrounded by piezometers. They are located in Czechia, Germany and Poland. Due to the cold and wet winter and rainy spring the piezometers in Poland went up. PGE claims that the Czechs have not revealed the measurements recorded on their side of the border. The company explained that Czechia is separated from the mine with a layer that is 90 percent impenetrable as it is composed of clay and silts. There is one place, one layer of soil where water could go to the Polish side. However, according to PGE that layer is too deep to make a difference. Experts have proposed that the outflow of water to the Polish side of the border should be stopped. Already in 2019 PGE suggested that an anti-filtration screen could be built. The screen will decrease permeability. Germans have built such screens near their open-pit mines and the results are satisfactory.
The Polish screen is to be 1110 meters long and between 64 and 117 meters deep. The screen is built by drilling several boreholes and injecting a mix that decreases permeability. The permeability will be monitored and if it turns out that the results are satisfactory more boreholes will be drilled. The injected material is composed of modified clays and various additives. The mixture has been patented by the technology provider.
Will the screen be expanded?
Deputy Minister of Climate and Environment and the Chief Geologist of Poland Piotr Dziadzio said during a speech at the Sejm that according to PGE, the owner of the mine and power plant in Turów, the anti-filtration screen will be ready a year earlier than planned. PGE announced in May that it had started the construction of the screen earlier in order to make it impossible for the water from Czechia to “escape” to the mine from which it is pumped out. The company ensured that the construction would be completed in September this year. Dziadzio also said that he has already seen partial final inspection protocols from March this year. “200 injection holes have been already drilled, which is exactly as many as the plan required. PGE also confirmed that if the screen fails to achieve the project targets, the investor is obliged to widen and deepen it,” he explained. This is an important declaration, because geologists in Czechia have pointed out that the screen may not be big enough, and that it might have to be expanded to the south-east. The ongoing talks in Prague may be priceless, because at any moment the Court of Justice may respond to the Czech application to impose a penalty on Poland. Czechs asked that the Court impose a daily EUR 5 million penalty on Poland for not implementing the intermediary measures. Poles have asked the CJEU to first consider their motion to not impose the penalties and to withdraw the intermediary measure under which Poland has to stop all activities at the open-pit mine in Turów.